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Situated at the eastern end of North Carolina’s Brunswick Island beaches, Oak Island has been a family summer vacation destination for decades. The Intracoastal Waterway separates the mainland from this barrier island, a long and skinny sliver where much of the real estate is oceanfront. Bookended by marshland, Oak Island is home to an almost endless network of watery byways to explore by boat, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. Indeed, water is the star attraction here, whether it’s splashing in the gentle ocean waves, fishing for mackerel, or kite-surfing, but there are also lighthouses to climb, historic military sites to tour (including Fort Caswell, built to protect the coast from marauding pirates in the 1830s), and many holes of oceanfront golf to play. Bonus: Oak Island’s beaches are pet-friendly; in the off-season, your pup is even free to roam off-leash.
Most air travelers get to Oak Island by flying into Wilmington International Airport (ILM), about 45 minutes north, but you can also check routes through Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR), about a 90-minute drive to the south. The island itself is just 13 miles long and one mile wide, making it manageable to explore by bike, which you can rent from several shops on the island. But if you plan to venture down the coast toward Holden Beach or up in the direction of Wrightsville Beach, you’ll want to have your own wheels. From nearby Southport, you can catch a ferry to Bald Head Island or Fort Fisher.
Summer days are hot, humid, and breezy, with average highs of 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The water temperature is not far behind, reaching a bathtub-like 83 degrees. Summer is also the region’s wettest time of year: it gets nearly half its annual rainfall in August and September; and it’s always a good idea to be mindful of tropical storms during hurricane season, which runs from June to November. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit, when temps are mild and it’s not too humid. Winter nights can be downright cold, so pack something cozy.
Located in nearby Caswell Beach, this icon of the region has stood 153 feet over the mouth of the Cape Fear River since 1958. If you’re hoping to climb the 131 steps to reach the observation deck up top, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance.
Kids and adults can learn all about the salt marsh ecosystem at this nature center nestled among native oaks and pines, which has a walking trail, fossil exhibits, and butterfly garden. The center is open seasonally, April through September 1.
Accessible by ferry from Southport, this car-free island is known for its isolated beaches, the Old Baldy lighthouse, and its 191-acre nature preserve.
Anglers have two options here: the city-owned 880-foot Oak Island Pier or the privately-owned 893-foot Ocean Crest pier, said to be a great spot to hook a king mackerel. Both feature on-site bait shops where you can buy a fishing license and tackle.